Last year, Americans spent $22 billion on vitamins, herbal concoctions and other dietary supplements intended to promote health. But they had to take the quality of these products on faith. The federal Food and Drug Administration holds almost no authority to regulate dietary supplements' contents, or to ensure truthful labeling. Conceivably, a pill sold as ginseng could be cornstarch.
That is about to change, however. Under new rules to be phased in beginning Aug. 24, manufacturers will have to test all their products' ingredients for purity. They will also have to accurately label these products. Should they fail, the FDA will be able to take steps that range from forcing the removal of an ingredient to seeking criminal charges.
This is an important, long-overdue move toward ensuring that dietary supplements are not contaminated or adulterated. Unfortunately, the new rules do little to address these products' safety -- or even to tell whether they work. Supplements can cause harmful side effects, as happened with the weight-loss nostrum ephedra a few years ago. Ephedra was eventually linked to 155 deaths, but even so, the burden was on the FDA to prove that it was harmful. In contrast, the agency can pull a drug from the market when it only suspects it is unsafe.
Once the new rules take effect, Americans can probably be more confident that they are getting a pure product when they buy a supplement -- and that it contains what the label says it does. (The new rules apply to foreign-made products as well.) But they will be little closer to knowing whether the product is useful at best, harmful at worst. It would be best if the FDA's regulatory powers over supplements resembled those over drugs.
Still, we'll take the incremental change. Millions of Americans take dietary supplements, and the market is rapidly growing. Alternative medicine and new ideas about nutrition both find room for supplements; within limits, consumers should be free to experiment. They should not forget to consult with their doctors, though, or to use common sense. This is all the more imperative if, as seems likely, the FDA does not field much staff to enforce its new rules. To a great extent, consumers will have to depend on the good faith of manufacturers, and their incentive to comply with the law.